Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,015
07.03.2019

Her question remained unanswered. The thugs lifted her up, in response to the shadowed man's order, and carried her after Lord Akeldama out of the plush reception room.

“And, now, where is my precious baby?” she heard the shadowed man ask as they departed. “Ah, there he is! And how did he behave on this outing? Good? Of course he did, my darling.” Then his words degenerated into Latin.

Miss Tarabotti was carried through a long narrow corridor, painted white and lined with institutional-looking doors. It was lit with white ceramic oil lamps atop short marble pedestals dispersed between the doors. It all looked very ritualistic, like some sort of ancient place of worship. Oddly, the door handles were made to look like octopuses and so, upon closer inspection, were the lamps.

Miss Tarabotti was maneuvered down a long flight of stairs and into another corridor with more doors and lamps, exactly the same as the first.

“Where shall we put them?” asked one of the men. “Space is scarce, since we have vamped up operations, so to speak.”

The other three snickered at the terrible pun.

“Just put them in the cell at the end. It does not matter much if they are left together; the doctors will be taking Akeldama off soon enough for processing. The gray coats have been waiting to get their hands on him a good long while now. “

One of the others licked his fatty lips. “We ought to be getting quite large bonuses for this little collection venture.”

Murmurs of agreement met that statement.

They reached the last door in the corridor and slid aside the body section of its brass octopus handle, revealing a large keyhole. Opening the door, they unceremoniously deposited Miss Tarabotti and the supine form of Lord Akeldama inside the room. Alexia landed hard on her side and attempted not to cry out in pain. They slammed the door shut, and Alexia heard them chatting as they walked away. “Bodes well for a success in the experiments, eh?”

“Hardly.”

“What do we care so long as the pay is good?”

“Too true.”

“You know what I think? I think… “

And then their voices became faint and faded to silence.

Miss Tarabotti lay wide-eyed, staring about at the chamber in which she now found herself. Her pupils took a while to adjust to the blackness, for there were no oil lamps here and no other source of illumination. The cell did not have bars, just a seamless door with no inside handle, and felt more like a closet than a prison. Nevertheless, she knew instinctively that it was a prison. It had no windows, no furniture, no rug, and no other decoration of any kind—just herself and Lord Akeldama.

Someone cleared his throat.

With difficulty, her limbs being tightly bound and her physical dexterity further impeded by her dratted corset and bustle, Miss Tarabotti wiggled from lying on her back to lying on her side, facing Lord Akeldama.

The vampire's eyes were open, and he was staring at her intently. It was as though he were trying to speak to her with simply the power of a glare.

Alexia did not speak glare-ish.

Lord Akeldama began undulating toward her. He managed to writhe his way across the floor, like some sort of purple snake, the velvet of his beautiful coat slippery enough to aid his progress. Eventually he reached her. Then he flipped about and twiddled his bound hands until Miss Tarabotti understood what he was after.

Alexia flipped back over, inched down, and pressed the back of her head to his hand. The vampire was able to undo the gag tied over her mouth with his fingertips. Her wrists and legs, unfortunately, were manacled with steel bonds, as were his. Such cuffs were beyond even a vampire's ability to break.

With great difficulty, they managed to reverse positions so that Miss Tarabotti could untie Lord Akeldama's gag. Then they were at least able to talk.

“Well,” said Lord Akeldama, “this is a pretty kettle of fish. I think those miscreants have just ruined one of my best evening jackets. How very vexing. It is a particular favorite of mine. I am sorry to have dragged you into this, my dear, almost as much as having dragged the evening jacket into it.”

“Oh, don't be so nonsensical. My head is still spinning from that blasted chloroform, and there is no need for you to be tiresome on top of it,” remonstrated Miss Tarabotti. “This situation could not possibly be misconstrued as your fault.”

“But they were after me.” In the dark, Lord Akeldama actually looked guilty. But that could have been a trick of the shadows.

“They would have been after me as well, if they only knew my name,” insisted Miss Tarabotti, “so let us hear nothing more about it.”

The vampire nodded. “Well,” he said, “my buttercup, I suggest we keep that name of yours quiet as long as possible.”

Alexia grinned. “You should not find that a particularly difficult endeavor. You never do use my real name anyway.”

Lord Akeldama chuckled. “Too true.”

Miss Tarabotti frowned. “We may not need to bother with subterfuge. The wax-faced man knows. He saw me in the carriage outside the Westminster hive, and he saw me at my window one night when they came to abduct a known preternatural. He will put two and two together and realize I am the same person.”

“Cannot be done, dewdrop,” said Lord Akeldama confidently.

Alexia shifted, trying to relieve the pain in her manacled wrists. “How could you possibly know that?” she asked, wondering at his confident tone.

“The wax-faced man, as you call it, cannot tell anyone anything. He has no voice, little tulip, none at all,” replied Lord Akeldama.

Alexia narrowed her eyes at him. “You know what he is? Do tell! He is not supernatural; I can tell you that much. “

“It, not him, my lightning bug. And, yes, I know what if is.” Lord Akeldama wore a coy expression, one that usually accompanied his fiddling with his cravat pin. As his arms were cuffed behind his back, and his pin had been judiciously removed, he could do nothing to add to the expression but purse his lips.

“Well?” Miss Tarabotti was itching with curiosity.

“Homunculus simulacrum,” said Lord Akeldama.

Miss Tarabotti looked back at him blankly.

He sighed. “A lusus naturae?”

Alexia decided he was playing with her and gave him a nasty look.

He explained further. “A synthetic creature formed by science, an alchemical artificial man…”

Miss Tarabotti wracked her brain and finally came up with a word from some long-ago religious text in her father's library. “An automaton?”

“Exactly! They have existed before.”

Miss Tarabotti's generous mouth fell open. She had thought them mere creatures of legend, like unicorns: freaks of a purely mythical nature. The scientific side of her intellect was intrigued. “But, what is it made of? How does it work? It seems so very much alive!”

Lord Akeldama took exception to her word choice once again. “It is moving, animated, and active, yes. But, my dear bluebell, alive it most certainly is not.”

“Yes, but how?”

“Who knows what dastardly science went into its creation—a metal skeleton perhaps, a small aetheromagnetic or steam engine of some kind. Perhaps it has clockwork parts. I am no engineer to know the truth of it.”

“But why should anyone wish to build such a creature?”

“You are asking me to explain the actions of a scientist? I hardly know how to put it, petunia petal. Your friend there would appear to be the perfect servant: unflagging and loyal to the last. Of course, one would suppose all orders must be very precise.” He would have continued, but Miss Tarabotti interrupted him.

“Yes, yes, but what about killing them?” Alexia went straight for the heart of the matter. Really, she quite adored Lord Akeldama, but he did tend to blather on.

Lord Akeldama looked at her reprovingly. “Now, do not be too hasty, my darling. All in good time.”

“That is easy for you to say,” grumbled Miss Tarabotti. “You are a vampire; all you have is time.”

“Apparently not. I need hardly remind you, sweetheart, that those men are coming back for me. Shortly. Or so they implied.”

“You were awake the entire time.” Miss Tarabotti was somehow unsurprised.

“I awoke in the carriage on the way here. I feigned sleep, as there seemed nothing advantageous in alerting them to my consciousness. Pretending afforded me an opportunity to overhear interesting information. Unfortunately, I heard nothing of any consequence. Those”— he paused as though searching for the right way to describe the men who had abducted them—”degenerates are mere minions. They know only what they have been told to do, not why they were told to do it. Just as bad as the automaton. They were not interested in discussing this business, whatever it is, among themselves. But, marigold—”

Miss Tarabotti interrupted him again. “Please, Lord Akeldama, I do not mean to be rude, but the homunculus simulacrum?”

“Quite right, my dear. If I am to be taken off presently, you should have as much information as I can relay. In my limited experience, automatons cannot be killed. Because how does one kill something that is not alive? The homunculus simulacrum can be disanimated, though.”

Miss Tarabotti, who had developed rather unladylike homicidal tendencies toward the repulsive wax-faced thing, asked eagerly, “How?”

“Well,” said Lord Akeldama, “activation and control is usually in the form of a word or phrase. If one can find a way to undo that phrase, one can, in effect, turn the homunculus simulacrum off, like a mechanical doll.”

“A word like VIXI?” suggested Alexia.

“Very like. You have seen it?”

“Written across its forehead, in some kind of black powder,” Miss Tarabotti confirmed. “Magnetized iron dust, I would hazard a guess, aligned to the domain of the automaton's internal engine, possibly through an aetheric connection. You must find a way to undo it.”

“Undo what?” she asked. “The VIXI.”

“Ah.” Miss Tarabotti pretended to understand. “That simple, is it?”

In the darkness of their lonely cell, Lord Akeldama grinned at her. “Now you are playing me for a lark, my sweet. I am sorry I do not know any more. I have never had to deal with a homunculus simulacrum personally. Alchemic sciences have never been my forte.”

Alexia wondered what was his forte but asked, “What else do you think they are doing at this club? Aside from building an automaton.”

The vampire shrugged as much as his handcuffs would allow. “Whatever they do must, perforce, involve experimentation on vampires, possibly a forcing of metamorphosis. I am beginning to suspect that rove you killed—when was it, a week or so ago?—was not actually made supernatural at all but was manufactured as a counterfeit of some kind.”

“They have been abducting loner werewolves too. Professor Lyall found out about it,” Alexia told him.

“Really? I did not know that.” Lord Akeldama sounded more disappointed in his own abilities than surprised at the news. “Stands to reason, I suppose; might as well work with both sides of the supernatural living. I assure you, even these scientists cannot figure out a way to cut open or replicate a ghost. The real question is, what are they doing with all of us in the end?”

Miss Tarabotti shuddered, remembering that Countess Nadasdy had said the new vampires rarely lived beyond a few days. “It cannot be pleasant, whatever it is.”

“No,” Lord Akeldama agreed quietly. “No, it cannot.” He was silent for a long moment, and then he said soberly, “My dear child, may I ask you something, in all seriousness?”

Alexia raised her eyebrows. “I do not know. Can you? I did not think you actually possessed the capacity for seriousness, my lord.”

“Ah, yes, it is an assumption I have taken great care to cultivate.” The vampire cleared his throat. “But, let me give it my best attempt this once. It seems unlikely that I will survive this little misadventure of ours. But if I do, I should like to ask a favor of you.”

Miss Tarabotti did not know what to say at that. She was struck by how bleak her life suddenly looked without Lord Akeldama to color it. She was also amazed by his calm acceptance of his impending demise. She supposed that after so many centuries, death was no longer a fearsome thing.

He continued. “It has been a very, very long time since I have experienced the sun. Do you think you might wake me early one evening, with contact, so that I could see it set?”

Miss Tarabotti was touched by such a request. It would be a very dangerous endeavor for him, for he would have to trust her implicitly not to let go. If they broke contact for even a moment, he would immolate instantly.

“Are you certain?”

He breathed out acknowledgment as though it were a benediction. “Absolutely positive.” Just then, the door to the cell banged open. One of the flunkies came in and unceremoniously lifted Lord Akeldama over one bulky shoulder.

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